“Mama is preparing to die. This is nothing new. She started to make these preparations when I was in fourth grade, 34 years ago.”

With that opening, Arizona Daily Star reporter Carmen Duarte started her 36-part series on “Mama’s Santos: An Arizona Life,” a poignant portrait of her mother that also tells the story of immigration in Arizona.

From a field of more than 150 entries, “Mama’s Santos” was one of 16 newspaper and television stories to make the 2001 Let’s Do It Better list of honorees. Each story had to pass a vigorous discussion, based on issues of context, complexity, authority and voice, during the final phase of judging, held at The Poynter Institute in January.

No one describes how “Mama’s Santos” wrote its way onto this list better than the nominating letter from Jane Amari, editor of the Star and a graduate “gatekeeper” who attended the first Let’s Do It Better workshop.

“It is a story of one woman’s courage, strength and faith,” wrote Amari, “but many of our readers told us it was the story of their families as well.”

Told in first person in chapter-by-chapter episodes—a device Amari admits was “a risk”—Duarte told the tale of the Arizona cotton industry through the experiences of her mother and other family members.

Duarte’s mother, “Nala,” became “a metaphor for the thousands of Hispanics whose experiences in this harsh and beautiful corner of our country were similar,” Amari added. “It is a tale of obstacles met and overcome, whether they had to deal with the unforgiving climate or discrimination and economic inequality. Although it is ‘Nala’s’ story, it is also Carmen’s, who through telling the tale found in her mother a source of strength and a renewal of faith in the future.”

Amari said the series, which ended in March 2000, continues to draw viewers to the paper’s Web site at www.adstarnet.com. “So many people in the community told their friends and relatives about it that we’ve translated it into Spanish for the Web site.”

Duarte receives a plaque and a $500 check from Columbia in recognition of her work. But it’s the gatekeepers—editors who attend Let’s Do It Better workshops—who will receive the real gift when they hear and discuss the emotional journey Carmen Duarte took to tell her family’s story and the impact it achieved by “doing it better.”

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